October 30, 2005
Peggy Noonan’s latest article, A Separate Peace, is up at the WSJ. Peggy takes a quick look at our culture, and think’s we’ve jumped the shark. At times, of course, I agree with her. In a country where a majority of people can name all five Backstreet Boys but cannot name their own two senators, one has to worry. I’ve asked before whether we’ve hit Peak Liberty, and as long as we’ve got people who are more concerned with pop culture than the people making laws which can destroy their lives, we’re in some sort of trouble. Some days, even I agree that the only way I’ll be able to find liberty in my lifetime is the hope of leaving this third rock from the sun.
All that being said, however, I think Noonan is all doom-and-gloom, and I don’t think we have a reason to worry that the sky is falling. What I think Noonan is confusing is cause and effect. She sees that the government can’t handle what’s put in front of it, but completely misses the next step.
Let me focus for a minute on the presidency, another institution in trouble. In the past I have been impatient with the idea that it’s impossible now to be president, that it is impossible to run the government of the United States successfully or even competently. I always thought that was an excuse of losers. I’d seen a successful presidency up close. It can be done.
But since 9/11, in the four years after that catastrophe, I have wondered if it hasn’t all gotten too big, too complicated, too crucial, too many-fronted, too . . . impossible.
I refer to the sheer scope, speed and urgency of the issues that go to a president’s desk, to the impossibility of bureaucracy, to the array of impeding and antagonistic forces (the 50-50 nation, the mass media, the senators owned by the groups), to the need to have a fully informed understanding of and stand on the most exotic issues, from Avian flu to the domestic realities of Zimbabwe.
She goes on to worry that the “elites” have resigned themselves to making some money rearranging the deck chairs, and haven’t volunteered to save us. She’s worried that the job of President has just grown too big to handle, and that the only solution is the inevitable downfall of society.
The implicit assumption Noonan makes, which is the entire root of the error she so eloquently makes, is the thought that government has to be this big. Of course, an enormous country, with a $10T economy, comprised of 50 competing semi-autonomous states, facing threats from within and without, can’t be managed by a single person, or a single bureaucracy. In fact, it’s simply too large and too complicated to be successfully managed by a central government at all. This has been proven over the last century by Russia, China, the EU, and every major nation which has attempted any sort of central planning.
Think of corporate America for a moment. Companies start out as nimble, successful enterprises. Their small size allows them to react quickly to changes in the market, and a small, cohesive management team ensures that everything is on the right track. As the corporation grows, the ability to be nimble and manage everything starts to fall apart. It becomes more and more important for the organization to be structured around the right procedures, the right atmosphere, the right goals. It becomes crucially important for the management team to be able to select competent people to run the lower levels, and to correct problems when those people falter. But as the corporation grows, it becomes easier and easier for small problems in any aspect to create a slow rot in the organization, and what was once a Microsoft, or General Electric becomes a Nortel or Lucent, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and failure.
Peggy Noonan asks whether our elites and our government have what it takes to lead us to glory. It’s quite obvious that they don’t, but the problem is not with them. Nobody has what it takes, as she points out with her concern over the “size” of the presidency. But the concerns over whether we’ve jumped the track are only valid because we’ve asked all of America to board the train. We’ve asked Americans to believe that government is there to save them, and then when government fails, wonder why the “elites” aren’t stepping in to get us back on our course.
America isn’t the small, nimble company scrambling for market share. Nor is it the major multinational vying for global market dominance. America is much, much bigger than that. The federal government is itself much bigger than any multinational, and at the same time, much worse run. If we start tasking them with the responsibility of running the entire country, we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail that fool’s errand. To keep the federal government functioning, we need to do what the founders envisioned: give them a very limited mission and the resources to fulfill it. The government is capable of protecting you from most threats internal and external, not of being your nanny and caretaker.
Peggy’s right. The wheels are falling off and the state is being crushed under its own weight. There are only two possible remedies to this situation. Either we step back from the brink, and reform our government to ensure that it gets back to responsibilities it can handle, and leave the rest to states, communities, private groups and individuals themselves. Or, we continue full-speed into the chasm and watch it all come crashing down around us, and those who can manage it will pick up the pieces and (hopefully) set it right. I’d prefer the former, but like Peggy, I’m not too sure we’re going to get there. But the first step is accurately explaining the problem. As long as we’re relying on some unnamed “elites” to save us, we’re doomed.
Also on the story: Below the Beltway, who agrees with Noonan, and The Speculist, who agrees with me. And the Hat Tip goes to Boortz on this one.
Below The Beltway linked with Are The Wheels Falling Off ?
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